Wouldn’t it be funny if Donald Trump and the wildly popular feminist comedian Amy Schumer joined forces and ran on the same presidential ticket in 2016?
You might not think this duo has much in common, but they certainly share similar views about Mexicans. Whether joking or not, both draw on shared cultural stereotypes and use dehumanizing language that gives life to an ecosystem of racial fear and violence.
On June 15, Trump announced his run for the presidency. In his speech, he called Mexicans drug dealers and rapists. Mexico “is not our friend, believe me,” the real estate mogul said. “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”
A week later, the Guardian published a piece calling out Schumer’s “shockingly large blind spot around race.” It cited Schumer’s stint as the MTV movie awards host, where she joked that Latina women are “crazy.” In one of her stand-up routines, Schumer also says, “Nothing works 100 percent of the time, except Mexicans.” In another bit, she blithely told an audience that Latino men are rapists. “I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual.”
Schumer responded to this criticism by explaining that she likes pretending to be an “irreverent idiot” who says “the dumbest things possible.”
“Playing with race is a thing we are not supposed to do, which is what makes it so fun for comics,” she wrote. “You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you are wrong. It is a joke and it is funny. I know because people laugh at it.”
A blind spot is not finding humor in the systemic exploitation of Mexican workers. A blind spot is not making jokes that depict Latina women as crazy. Nor is it a laughing matter for a white woman to suggest that Mexicans, or other men of color, are natural-born rapists.
Several people have rushed to her defense, arguing that Schumer can’t be racist because she doesn’t intend to be. But the motivation of the joke-teller and what compels laughter is not at issue. What matters is the costs and consequences of these “jokes” to those being objectified. Invoking the “it’s just a joke” defense denies the social, historic and cultural implications of racial humor. It ignores the ways that disparaging jokes provide a safe vehicle to share stereotypes, release inhibitions and spread racism.
Racial jokes allow white America to claim that race no longer matters, even as there’s talk whizzing in every direction about how blacks and Latinos are outbreeding whites, are criminals and welfare queens, are “stealing jobs” and victimizing whites through affirmative action policies and denying them the right to use the n-word. Comedy allows these comforting ideas to be shared with a built-in defense mechanism that protects white innocence.
America’s soil of racism is fed by jokes and incendiary speeches, by stereotypical images and symbols like the Confederate flag. Just as Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and other members of the Republican Party regularly disparage people of color and claim they are simply telling the truth, Schumer can use comedy as a protective shroud to deny the harm and hurt caused by her jokes. A joke is considered benign especially when told by a supposed white liberal feminist. We can distance ourselves from the anger, from the harm, from the ideology, and from the hatred of the “extreme,” but also find comfort in the same anger, ideology and hatred that is “just a joke.”
This rhetoric isn’t just ugly. It contributes to a worldview that justifies a broken immigration system, mass incarceration, divestment from inner city communities, that rationalizes inequality and buttresses persistent segregation and violence. Yet nobody wants to take responsibility for spewing rhetoric that breeds the fear that results in soaring gun purchases, that “inspires” monsters like Dylann Roof to craft a manifesto with deadly consequences.
Comedy has always played an instrumental role in advancing social justice, in pushing society to look into the mirror, to reflect on the inconsistencies and contradictions. Schumer herself has shined a spotlight on rape culture, misogyny and sexism. But when it comes to race, she betrays this tradition. Blind or not, joking or not, Schumer used her stage to play and profit off race while people of color are bearing the brunt of racial violence.
While black families are burying their dead, churches are burning, black women church pastors are receiving death threats and the KKK is planning rallies in South Carolina, Schumer is “playing” with race. While Latinos are being deported in record numbers, while “80 percent of Central American girls and women crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped,” while children are languishing in camps in the Southwest, Schumer has got jokes, and only white America is laughing.